Women Opinion

Grace Tame’s non-smile speaks volumes

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Australian of the Year 2021 Grace Tame refused to smile for a photo-op with Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Screenshot via YouTube)


Grace Tame was magnificent in her refusal. And as a survivor, I thank her with all my heart.
~ Dr Jennifer Wilson

* CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape.

ONE OF THE MOST unreasonable demands put on victims and survivors of sexual assault, whether the assaults occurred in childhood or as an adult – or for some of us, both – is that we speak and behave “civilly” when re-traumatising ourselves by recounting our original trauma.

It is impossible for most of us to speak publicly about what was done to us without paying a price. Revisiting the trauma is part of the price. Few of us can return to those sites of terror without great emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical cost.  

Struggling to frame our stories in a manner that is deemed to be acceptable adds another traumatic layer and extorts another cost. Yes, we are admired and commended for speaking out, but only if we speak out “civilly”. To be heard, a survivor must not be a mess. The majority of us are messy to varying degrees, and we have every right to be.

However, the imperative to conceal our messiness is powerful and actually reflects the demands of the perpetrator that we keep their assaults and the effects on us a secret.

The demand to be “civil” in this instance usually means that we must control and disguise our emotions. Tears are acceptable, even lauded, provided they don’t get out of hand. Rage is definitely not regarded as civil. Neither is anger. We are required to be “good” victims and thoughtful survivors, respecting the perceived right of others not to be made uncomfortable by any excessive expression of our distress.

2021 Australian of the Year and survivor of childhood sexual assault, Grace Tame, has always been willing to pay the cost of re-traumatisation. Her story is inescapably present at her every appearance. Many of us can retreat into circumstances that do not demand that we daily and publicly perform our survival. Ms Tame relinquished that relief when she took on her role as Australian of the Year.

Grace Tame refused the demand to be a “good survivor” when she did not smile at Prime Minister Scott Morrison and indeed, demonstrated through body language and devastating side eyes that she has very little regard for him and isn’t going to pretend otherwise.

The civility police lost their shit.

Ms Tame broke all their rules.

Leading the charge against Ms Tame was academic and Murdoch hack Peter van Onselen, who demanded to know why, if she wasn’t going to smile, Ms Tame even bothered to attend the event with Scott Morrison. His attitude told all survivors that our right to a voice is contingent on our willingness to play the civility game, as defined by the political class van Onselen believes he represents.

No matter how much we have suffered, no matter how much we have endured, the measure of our worth is, apparently, whether or not we will smile at the Prime Minister.

Van Onselen and those who echoed his privileging of manners over truth told survivors, through their efforts to shame Ms Tame, that our trauma and our post-traumatic stress, our struggles to overcome, our desire to help others and our mangled, unbelievably challenging post-assault lives count for nothing compared to our refusal to be civil.

Our refusal to be civil is the crime. Our refusal to play the game is the crime.

While in the larger scheme of things van Onselen is incontestably irrelevant and always will be, in this instance he is vocalising from his national platform the demand that survivors behave in a particular way before we can have access to that or any other platform.  

Van Onselen is currently the poster boy for suppression of the survivor voice — unless that voice is, in his terms, polite.

One thing we are used to, as survivors, is the attempt to shame us. We feel shame that we were unable to protect ourselves. We feel shame that we were forced into acts that most profoundly betrayed our every moral instinct. We feel shame that we have been defiled and degraded by the perversions of another. We feel shame that we have been forced into participating in vile acts. We struggle with this shame, even though we know it is not ours.

But this is not enough for the civility police. They must continue to attempt to shame us, despite all the shame we have already endured, because we do not smile.

Grace Tame was magnificent in her refusal. And as a survivor, I thank her with all my heart.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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